Monday, July 14, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Seven, Naked Photographs

I awoke to a great humming sound, an incessant vibrational drone issuing from the blue, flickering bowels of the huge, octopus-shaped furnace that rested only inches above my head.
     I’d been startled by a queer sensation growing in my left hand, like pins and needles, but far worse, so much it made me wince.
     Staggering to my knees, I crawled across my bed, the musty mattress I’d procured the day before, the day I’d moved into the basement of the derelict nineteenth century townhouse affectionately known as the “Ice Palace”, as much due to its penchant for freezing tenants in their sleep (the octopus being less than reliable), as for it being the home of the troublemaker named Iceman, perhaps the nuttiest of Bettina’s nutty gang. “It’s – it’s – my – my –” I gasped, rolling onto the hand, hoping to suppress the pain, but it did little good, it felt like my fingers were about to explode.
     Beating my fist into the mattress, I began to whimper, like a scolded puppy, flashes of white light hovering before my closed eyes. 
I cried out, smacking into the base of the ancient furnace, where its rust-coated belly sat on a pedestal of concrete, its pilot light sending dull tendrils of shadow across the basement, reaching the corner where a red-haired punk named Laser was lying, coiled inside a dour-looking blanket.
     “Can you maybe keep it down?” moaned the blanket, opening one eye, watching me strike the furnace with the back of my hand. I was now offering up a rapid succession of howls and breathless expulsions, which lasted two or three minutes, before the pain finally began to subside. A moment later, there was just a numb, burning sensation in my fingertips. I lay there, not moving, sprawled across the dirty floor in my underwear and T-shirt, my chest heaving as I sucked in the warm, stale air.
     “What the fuck’s going
on?” asked Laser, now blinking his eyes.
     “I think – I think I just had a
heart attack,” I breathed, holding my fist to my chest, trying to assure myself it was really over, that the horrible feeling wasn’t about to come racing right back.
     Laser just laughed. “Heart attacks are for
old people – you must have been sleeping on your arm, that’s all. You knocked me out of the best fucking dream.”
     “Sorry,” I offered, still clenching my fist, my heart beating in my ears. I suddenly felt very tired, weak, as if I’d run a great distance.
     “Won’t do any good now,” sighed Laser. “Madonna’s long gone – her
girlfriends with her.”
     Normally I would have laughed, but all I could do was stare, my new roommate’s grin belying the poison look in his pale eyes.

“I swear, my hand felt just like a
     “Was it “Comfortably Numb”, Pinkie?” F teased, keeping her back to me, her attention focused on a bulging shelf of old books marked MISC./ETC./NAME A PRICE. Just the week before, we’d seen
The Wall, the new Pink Floyd movie.
serious!” I stressed, frustrated I couldn’t make anyone understand exactly what had happened. “I thought I was dying – how funny is that?”
     “Rolling around the basement in your underwear?” she giggled, turning to glance at me from behind her thick, dark bangs, a familiar crease across the bridge of her nose. “That only makes it
funnier, T.”
     I marched right by her, snatching an oversized atlas from a pile of boxes. “Maybe you should spend the day with
     “Oh, listen to the poor little baby,” she remarked, selecting a small red book. “I was only
teasing you. You’ve got to be the most sensitive guy I’ve ever slept with – I swear you are.”
     I slammed the atlas shut, shoving it back into the box, making a show of it, looking across the aisle, disappointed to see that she was still lost in her own book. “I am NOT sensitive,” I insisted, moving back towards where she stood. As I passed her she suddenly backed up, trapping me to the bookcase by the wall. She pushed into me with her backside, its familiar and inviting softness making me almost instantly hard. “What are you
doing?” I gasped.
     “You’re too much sometimes,” she sighed, reaching back with one hand to cup me. “Do you even
know how many guys in Pittsburgh would happily fuck me in a bookshop – right this very minute?”
I fuck you in bookshops! You know I do!” I stammered, wriggling free, the front of my jeans as tight as a boy scout’s tent. “In Squirrel Hill that one time – remember?”
     “Squirrel Hill? Are you
sure? I thought we did it downtown, or was it in Oakland? Oh – wait – sorry – those were other guys I was dating at the time.”
     Shifting my belt, nervously adjusting myself, I strode noisily to the stairs that led up to the cluttered front of the second hand bookstore, a favorite haunt, one we’d retreated into, wanting to escape the heavy rains that had deluged the city for two straight days. “I’m going – I’ll see you outside,” I said, my voice taking on an uncharacteristic flatness. I caught F’s eyes following me as I went. Pressing the little book to her chest, she hurried after me.

“The furnace kept me awake half the night.”
     “I don’t know why you don’t just come and stay with
me. It’s no big deal, you know,” F replied, busy investigating the red book, which now laid open before her on the table of the booth we’d secured by the front window of a George Aiken’s restaurant in a depressing stretch of Wilkinsburg, a rough, mostly forgotten neighborhood to the east of downtown. Wilkinsburg was the sort of place where someone would die in their home and not be discovered until the police dogs began their troubled sniffing.
     “I know, I just want to – I like hanging with the guys, that’s all. I see you pretty regularly, don’t I?” I said, wanting to tell her that I was really concerned with rushing into things, that I cared about her. It was a sudden sense of caution that made me nervous. Picking at my dinner, a piece of battered fish lying in a pool of graying tartar sauce and oil, I tried to remember what it was like before I met her. We’d only been going out for a couple of weeks.

I first set eyes on Effie Jones at one of Bettina’s wild parties up in Mount Washington, the one where Caligula had almost dropped Willy Blanefield III from a porch overlooking the steep hillside.
     She’d been sitting in the dark with another girl, ignoring the rest of us as we watched Meat guzzle a milk jug filled with Bettina’s toxic punch. They were so close together, whispering into each other’s ear, that I at first mistook them for girlfriends. I mean
real girlfriends. Later that night, as we walked along Grandview Avenue, I told her what I’d thought, hoping to amuse her, but she instead snapped at me, calling me a witless jerk. Thinking that was it, that I’d blown my chances with the most attractive girl I’d met since moving to Pittsburgh, I just took off, leaving her to make her own way back to the dying embers of the party. I was completely surprised the next day when Helmut tossed her name and number at the couch, where I was still sleeping. “Treat her right, Totty,” he’d warned, giving me one of his hard looks, as I clawed out of my sheet, grabbing for the bit of folded paper. “Tina says she’s gone through two real jerks in the past year – she doesn’t need another.”

     “Are you even listening to me?”
What were you saying again?”
     F sighed, giving me a long, thoughtful look. “I was
saying this is a Harver, a Mary Wilson Harver, one I’ve never even heard of – let alone seen before. Can you believe it?” She carefully turned back to the front of the compact book. “Naked Photographs, A Book of Words for Pictures not Shown, by Mary Wilson Harver.”
     “Naked Photographs?” I snickered. “Let me see one.”
     “Idiot, they’re just
words – didn’t you listen?”
     “Naked words?” I suggested, watching the rain running down the greasy window, making the street beyond a liquid blur.
     “Eat your fish and listen,
pea-brain,” she said, turning back to the middle of the book. “A young woman, perhaps twenty, sits on the lawn beside a red brick wall, her long skirt arranged about her like the petals of a marigold. Her sleeves are loose and billowy, lined with gold sequins, as is the hem of her skirt. She is squinting into the sun, smiling, showing bright and even teeth. Her complexion and dress suggest she might be a gypsy, of Mediterranean blood. Behind her is a house, the front of which has been all but consumed by ivy, covering everything but the doorway and two windows, which appear, nestled in the thick canopy, like the deep-set eyes of some aged man, watching the young woman from his solitary retreat.”
     “That doesn’t sound much like a book for kids,” I remarked, pulling the wet batter from my fish. Mary Wilson Harver was mostly known as the author of
Spaceship Elleven, a popular children’s book. Popular in Canada, anyway.
     “I don’t think it
is,” F murmured, checking the back pages. “It doesn’t even mention her other books.”
     “Are you sure it’s the same Mary Wilson Harver?”
     “It has to be – it’s printed in Canada. A different publisher, and there’s no date, but it’s her, I
know it is. Listen to this one –” 
     An old man in the booth directly behind us suddenly coughed, a violent succession of phlegmy retorts, like you'd imagine a submarine backfiring. F looked up, her thick eyebrows at attention, until the sound stopped. She then continued.
     “A heavy-set man, about forty-five, with close-cropped, dark brown hair, wearing a cream-colored jacket and grey slacks, stands on a leaf-covered dirt path, a folded newspaper sticking from his jacket pocket. He is holding an open palm towards a doe that cranes her neck in order to get at what he is offering her. The deer seems tame, as if she is used to feeding this way. The man is grinning, apparently amusing whoever is photographing him. In the background is a small grove of mostly leafless trees, and a barn, listing to one side, as if it is very nearly ready to collapse.”
     I made a face. “So, that’s it? We’re supposed to imagine the photographs?”
     “I think so,” said F, sounding lost in thought.
     “Why isn't it called “Invisible Photographs” then?” I asked, pushing aside the soggy cardboard container that held the remains of my dinner.
     “Listen to
this one,” she proceeded, ignoring my remark. “A woman, probably in her early thirties, crouches beside a boy, who appears to be about five. They are in a field, there is a long stone wall behind them. The woman is holding the boy close. He is wincing, arching his body away from her. She is looking straight at a man who stands to the right, holding a wooden plank in one hand. About the same age as the woman, the man is poised tensely, as if he is about to move. He is rather short, but solidly built, veins showing on his forearms, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows. His face is shiny and dark, his eyes white and large. There is another man, taller and thinner, standing to the left of the woman and the boy. Behind them all, leaning against the wall, is another boy, a bit older, perhaps eight or nine. His eyes are glued to the man with the plank.”

Georg? Put the stick down, Georg, you don’t want to hurt anyone.
Keep your distance, Alder. This is between the boy and me.
Georg – please – listen to your brother!
Let go of the boy, Mrs. Vogel – so I can beat the lying eyes from his head.

     I had been staring outside, watching the buildings and utility poles beyond the veil of rain that coated the window, mesmerized by how they were moving, up and down, left and right.
     I turned to look at F. She was moving too.

I didn’t DO it! Helmut did it! Helmut did it!
Release the little liar, Mrs. Vogel – God help me, woman – I’ll hit you too!
Alder! Do something! Please!

“Tot. Tot! What’s
wrong with you? Stop it!”
     I don’t remember waving my arms about, grabbing the vinyl seat, crying out that my hands were on fire. I don’t remember knocking my drink over, soaking the little red book before F could rescue it. I don’t remember passing out. I don’t remember hitting my head on the table. I only remember opening my eyes, seeing F, seeing the lady from the counter.
     “Your friend is epileptic?” the lady was asking F, who was on her knees, leaning across the booth, holding my hands, gently rubbing them.
     “No, I don’t think so.
     I looked up, seeing the concern in F’s dark eyes. I grinned. “Guess I’m a bit too “sensitive” for those naked photographs, eh?”
     She frowned, biting her lower lip, the way she often did. I caught the flash of a tear in her eye.
     “I promise, F, I’ll never do it again.”
     She managed a little smile, continuing to rub at my hands, as if she was afraid to let go. I didn’t know it then, but she had already fallen in love with me.